Before asking the most important question of his life, Seth Greenberg wanted assurance from a trusted source.
It was the mid-1980s and Greenberg was still decades away from becoming one of ESPN’s leading voices on men’s college basketball. He was still moving his way up the coaching ranks, serving on various staffs, including one notable season as an assistant at the University of Virginia under Terry Holland when the Cavaliers made a surprise run to the 1984 Final Four.
Though it was a short time together, Holland and Greenberg formed the kind of relationship where the younger Greenberg felt comfortable telling the wiser Holland about anything, including his impending proposal to Karen, his then-girlfriend.
Holland and his wife, Ann, had met Karen a year earlier while the couples vacationed together in Florida. They more than approved then, telling Greenberg, “She’s the one.”
“So, about a year later, I picked up the phone,” Greenberg said, “and I called him and said, ‘Coach, I just want to let you know, as usual, you’re right.’ He goes, ‘Berg, don’t mess it up.’”
With Holland’s blessing, Greenberg proposed. He and Karen have been married for more than 35 years. They have three daughters.
Greenberg referenced that story during a recent appearance on the set of ESPN’s “College GameDay.” It was part of his tribute to Holland, the legendary UVA coach and athletics director who died Feb. 26.
Though Greenberg went on to spend nine seasons as the head coach of rival Virginia Tech, going 8-10 against the Wahoos, he believes the year he spent in Charlottesville jump-started his career.
“Virginia gave me the opportunity to continue to chase my dream,” Greenberg said.
UVA Today caught up with Greenberg, an ESPN analyst since 2012, to discuss Holland’s influence, the ‘84 Final Four run and the current state of UVA basketball as it makes its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance in 12 years under Tony Bennett.
The fourth-seeded Hoos play a first-round game against 13th-seeded Furman University on Thursday in Orlando, Florida.
Q. What was it about coach Holland that made you want to run huge decisions in your life by him?
A. Coach Holland was someone who looked at life through a unique prism. He was as honorable a person as I’ve ever meet, as genuine a person as I’ve ever met. He was a true mentor for me. He genuinely cared about me, my happiness and my success, so I wanted his blessing for things.
I always knew one thing about coach Holland is he looked at things from all sides. And he would never give me advice that, in his heart of hearts, he didn’t think was in the best interest of me professionally, personally and my family.
It was kind of an unconditional-love-type thing in a lot of ways. He was at my middle daughter’s wedding. Coach has just been a big part of my life in helping me navigate this thing called life, both professionally and personally. I was very fortunate to have that.
Q. Your one season at UVA was 1983-84, when the Cavaliers barely made the NCAA Tournament, but then went on to win four games by a total of 13 points and advance to the Final Four. What was that run like?
A. First of all, we didn’t think we were in. This was before selection shows, so I remember that afternoon going on a run with coach (Dave) Odom and coach Holland and we’re trying to figure out who we’re going to play in the NIT. And then we get back and I think it was Ms. Holland who said to Terry, “You got to call (then UVA athletics director) Dick Schultz.” We were in.
We looked at it as a new beginning and a fresh start. Coach (Holland) pretty much kept us two feet on the ground and dealing with what was in front of us. His mindset was, “What do we have to do to win this game?”
I think what helped us was we were really physical. When I say competitive, we were one of the most physical teams in the ACC. We hit every cutter. We had a toughness about us. We actually were very like coach Bennett’s teams and I think that’s why there was such an appreciation from coach Holland for coach Bennett, and I know from coach Bennett to coach Holland.
Q. What elements of coach Holland’s program did you see in Tony Bennett’s?
A. How tough-minded and how physical they are. How disciplined they are. How together they are in the trust that they play with. How they embrace their roles. There’re so many similarities – how they’re built on the defensive end first. I think those are the main things.
And then their discipline offensively. There was a grit to Terry’s Virginia teams that’s a similar grit to coach Bennett’s teams.
Q. What about this UVA team would make coach Holland proud?
A. I would say their resilience. I think coach would really appreciate their resilience, because that’s what our team was in 1983-84. We had the ability to get off the mat after losing the first round of the ACC Tournament. Keeping things in perspective and getting things to the next play or the next game and having resilience to put blinders on to move forward, I think would be a really good similarity.
Because let’s face it: This year’s team has some adversity, but like I tweeted the other day, through all the warts we look at with this team, they won another ACC (regular season) championship. And our team in 1983-84 had warts, but we figured out a way at the right time to get to the Final Four.
And I think the point guards are similar. Kihei Clark has a little Ricky Stokes in him.
Q. In what ways?
A. The defense! Ricky was most dangerous with what he could do defensively. He could absolutely disrupt you defensively. And Kihei’s like that. He gets underneath the ball, he’s aggressive. Now, Kihei’s a better offensive player than Ricky. I know he wouldn’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth.
But little guard, tough, resilient, impacts the game. Great leadership. Ricky was a tremendous leader. And they both have grit.
Q. What do you think is the NCAA Tournament ceiling for this UVA team?
A. My thing is real simple: If they can dictate and own the tempo and rhythm of the game, they can beat anyone. They’ve got to make some shots, but if they can impose their pace and their toughness and their ability to keep the ball out of the lane, force a contested shot, get a defensive rebound ... I’ve always said the art of the upset is to own the tempo and rhythm of the game, don’t give up second shots, don’t commit live-ball turnovers and have someone step up. Well, that’s how they won the national championship, if you think about it. Especially when someone stepped up in that last play against Purdue.
You don’t reinvent yourself in the NCAA Tournament. You stay true to your identity and impose that identity on the game. If they can do that, I think they can make a significant run in the NCAA Tournament.
Q. Whether as a game analyst or on the “College GameDay” set, you’ve been in Charlottesville and at John Paul Jones Arena a lot since getting into broadcasting. What do you think of the reception you’ve received here? A little better than when you were the coach of the Hokies?
A. Yeah, for sure. Look, Virginia-Virginia Tech is a rivalry and not many people have been on both sides of it. But it was always cool for me to go back to Charlottesville because I have a lot of fond memories that are still very vivid to me.
But I obviously have a lot of great memories at Virginia Tech. Of course, when you’re coaching a game and you’re trying to win a game and you’re a little demonstrative, you’re going to get heckled – especially for the students that didn’t know me. Some of these kids weren’t even born yet in ’83-’84.
So it was different, but my biggest thing when I went in there is I hoped people respected my journey. That Virginia gave me the opportunity to continue to chase my dream, which evolved into a job at Miami, which evolved into me becoming the head coach at Long Beach State, which evolved into my journey of becoming a head coach in the ACC. Without coach Holland and without that year at Virginia, my life would be very much different.
Like I said on the set, I would not be here if it wasn’t for that year and that relationship and Terry Holland investing in me.
Q. You went 3-3 against Bennett-coached UVA teams, with the last matchup coming in February 2012. Over a decade later, what have you admired most about the evolution of this program?
A. I think it’s the patience and the poise that he’s displayed. The manner in which he does business. How genuine he is in everything he does, how authentic he is in everything he does.
He’s set a standard for how to do it the right way. And by doing it the right way, you can still be on championship caliber and have the consistency. Right now, we talk about Duke and Carolina all the time and yet, Virginia’s the model program in the ACC.